Not Everything is a Debate

Not everything is a debate. Not everything has a conclusion, a summary, a finite judgment. Our need, our desire to wrap things up — usually with a bow of I’m right, you’re wrong — is a contributing factor to the diseased communications we are witnessing at this moment. What happened to exploring together, simply wondering about something aloud? (Have we ever really done this)? Only in the safest of company are we willing to venture forth into a sphere that we are unsure of, in order to gain some kind of insight for ourselves and perhaps even for those listening.

Imagine if political debates were conversations where two or more people considered issues together and provided what they saw as pros and cons — instead of barking strident rights and wrongs at each other. CNN debate moderator: “Vice President Biden, where do you think the idea of police defunding belongs in terms of a historical perspective? How does this pressing issue tie in with our country’s history of policing, law enforcement, community policing, law and order? In a perfect world, what would law enforcement look like to you?” Now I’d like to hear that answer, to watch the requisite thought processes, witness a potential leader’s frames of reference. I think that’s how you get to know someone, come to understand if you want them to run your country or not.

Because debates require that folks be on opposite ends of a given subject from the beginning, they are mostly useful as showcases for people’s abilities to memorize, distill and articulate under pressure. All worthy skills and certainly illustrative of one’s thinking. In fact perhaps we could employ debates on dating sites, wherein instead of reading about one’s favorite romantic activity we view a short clip of the potential candidate debating on a particular subject. “Splitting the Bill on the First Date, Equalization or Escapism?”

But what if we really want to accomplish something, say, change the world? What if we want to spread anti-racist thinking or encourage empathy or illustrate listening? Then we cannot shackle our discourse into a debate mode, instead allowing it to be more like a brisk walk together. Do you know anybody who takes a discussion and turns it into a debate before you even know you’re in one? There you are waxing poetic about One Love and suddenly they say, “I disagree!” After a moment of stunned silence, you ask, “With what?” And they go back to a word or sentence that you employed and turn it into a concrete statement and then stamp it with their challenge of its veracity. You were just wondering how to get more people to think about the incarcerated, or the deported, or the poor.

Working on immigrant rights these last few years, I have received so very many responses to my letters and public comments from public officials. Concerning a recent incident said to have happened to an immigrant at our county’s detention center, I wrote to the County Executive’s assistant: “Today I’m responding, in frustration, because of the ongoing cruelty at the…Facility. According to reports [this] immigrant has faced retaliation from corrections officers simply for talking to the press about the negligent medical care he’s experienced… He is still due his free speech rights, isn’t he?” The response I received included this sentence: “It is premature on your part to assume that the culture you describe exists … even before an investigation is conducted.” Instead of an exploration as to the issue at hand, I am told that I am wrong to assume that this event even happened. Case closed, conversation ended.

Look, whether you believe Jesus was the Messiah or not, if you have ever read the Bible you will see he was a pretty good listener. Instead of saying, You’re wrong, I’m right all the time he would typically offer up an analogy, or ask a question, to those who challenged him. He liked his discourse, though it made him so tired sometimes he had to go up to a mountain or find a deserted island to rest up from it. It is hard work to listen, to take in other’s words without automatically formulating your response. I always tell my students that as soon as they raise their hands to speak they have gone from listening mode to practicing their retort. Just. Wait.

I would like to see less encouragement of the debate mode — in the classroom and in the public square. Let’s talk, get to know each other, keep the channels open. I swear more good gets done that way. We should go back and study the great speeches, the ones we are taught changed history. Those were conversations, albeit sometimes with an audience of hundreds. Let’s grow humanity together, collectively, by sharing what’s in our minds and our hearts without concern for rebuttal. No goals. No scores. No wins or losses. Except, of course, for the gains that we will make by listening to each other’s ideas.

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